When George Best finally severed ties with Fulham to join Hibs 40 years ago this week, Brian Dalton, their deputy chairman, wished him well, before vividly illustrating his relief. “I have to admit I would have happily carried him up the M1 to Scotland on my back for all the heartache and trouble he has caused me,” he said.
It turned out others were just as willing to offer the wayward star lifts. Lodged between the equivalent of royalty in the back seat of a yellow Rover, Colin McNeill was as happy as a schoolboy had any right to be. Not only was Best sitting to his left, Angie Best was on his right.
His parents occupied the seats in front. Gordon, his father, was home after weeks working in Africa. The delight at seeing him again mingled with the thrill of knowing each of his knees was brushing against one half of football’s golden couple. Life was good but soon nothing would ever seem the same again.
Only 11 years old, and having missed Best’s greatest days, it’s possible McNeill was as excited by such close proximity to the blonde beauty as they all travelled into Edinburgh together. Angie was 27 years old. Best, then 33, was a year older than Lionel Messi is now, and a year younger than Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet he was reckoned to be past it. Signing for relegation-threatened Hibs of the Scottish Premier Division only seemed to confirm this view. Even such a genial legend as Lawrie Reilly couldn’t help being slightly dismissive. “He certainly looks fit,” he said. “But then so does Gordon Smith…”
As far as McNeill recalls, it was Angie’s first visit to Edinburgh to see her husband, who had signed for Hibs earlier in the month to great fanfare. This was still the 1970s. Only weeks remained of a decade in which Best, beset by alcoholism, had seriously lost his way.
Whether it was oversight on the part of Hibs, or they simply thought Best could take care of his own affairs, there was no transport laid on for him and his wife, who was on the same flight from London as McNeill’s father. He was employed by the London Rubber Company and was on the last leg of a journey home from Nigeria. Hence why McNeill, his mother Joyce and Best were all waiting in arrivals at what was then known as Turnhouse airport.
“My mum said to me: ‘Go and get his autograph’,” recalls McNeill. “I was like: ‘No chance’. I was too intimidated to do it. We stood there waiting. Out came my dad and my mum said: ‘George Best is over there’. He went over and got his autograph. A couple of minutes later Angie Best arrived.
“Then my mum went to get the car and when she came back to get my dad and me, George and Angie were still standing waiting there. My dad said: ‘Can we give you a lift?’ ”
As is now well known, Best’s HQ while at Hibs was the North British Hotel – now the Balmoral – on the east end of Princes Street, and within staggering distance of Easter Road. The McNeills lived in Linlithgow, in the opposite direction. “My mum still talks to this day what a pain in the neck it was going all the way into Edinburgh then out to Linlithgow again,” he says. “But when you have George and Angie Best in the car, a detour’s what you have to do.
“I think Angie was coming up for the first game [v St Mirren]. I remember going to school the next day and saying to my friends I was with George Best and had Angie Best next to me. Perhaps not surprisingly, they didn’t believe me.”
Best asked if he played football and who he supported. McNeill told him he was not a Hibs fan, nor was he a Hearts fan. He was and is a Dundee supporter, like his father before him. The family had moved down from Dundee a couple of years earlier.
“I told him he should be joining Dundee,” says McNeill. That would have likely ended in tears, too. Dundee joined Best’s Hibs in being relegated that season.
The McNeills wished their glamorous passengers well. “We dropped them off right outside the North British. I remember, even at that young age, being taken by how glamorous Angie was. She had this long blonde, glossy hair. It was as if London celebrity had arrived in Edinburgh.”
There were no pictures: “It was long before the days of people having mobile phones on them. I don’t even have the autograph any more sadly, it has disappeared in the mists of time.”
Remarkably, the McNeills boast another family tale involving Best. A few years later, the now retired footballer returned to Edinburgh to carry out some promotional duties in the company of Bill McMurdo, his agent. This time transport arrangements were firmly in hand.
McMurdo also looked after Hearts striker John Robertson, whose father-in-law, a family friend of the McNeills, was asked to be Best’s chauffeur. He dropped him round at the McNeills, who were by this time living in Edinburgh’s Murrayfield area.
Colin, now 17, arrived back with pals from Stewart’s Melville College to find Best chatting with his mother outside his family home. He finally got that photograph. “He said he remembered us,” says McNeill.
There are two footnotes though neither ought to be described simply as footnotes. McNeill grew up to become, among other things, commercial director at Hibs. He was on the board when Tony Mowbray was recruited as manager at Easter Road and when scarves, shirts and other items were laid outside the stadium after Best’s death was announced, 14 years ago this month.
That first meeting with Best is also one of the last memories he has of his father, who passed away aged only 44 the following month – December 1979.
When talk turns to Best’s time at Hibs, as it inevitably does when an anniversary like this one comes around, an understandable mix of emotions wells up in McNeill, who turned 50 last year. It’s an episode he associates with a profound absence as well as a starry presence, an empty seat on a journey onwards.